Psalm 80

February 18, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

Psalm 80

There is a line in one of Dorothy Sayers’ mystery stories, Gaudy Night, about a person of whom the Dean of a woman’s college says, “She’s stopped growing, I expect.” That comment reminded me of my garden each year. “It’s stopped growing, I see. I wonder what’s wrong this year?” My garden seems to need a constant supply of Miracle-Gro, or maybe just more attention than I give it. When the dandelions in the lawn do so well, I know it can’t be the soil. And for my life, generally, and perhaps for yours, a garden might be a helpful analogy. Are you still growing spiritually? Are you a plant that’s growing?

That’s the basic issue this Psalm, Psalm 80, poses. In order to be able to talk about whether or not you’re growing as a person you have to know three things: you have to know something about yourself. You have to know something about God, and you have to know what to look for as signs of growth. Let’s consider what the Psalm does with those three matters.

1. What do we know about ourselves? We can often tell a lot from how other people talk about us. If people say, he’s a superman! That’s tells you something. If they say, what a dud! That tells you something. The psalmist in verse 1 is thinking of sheep. We’re sheep. I’ve never thought sheep were particularly smart, but we could have been called worse. Now actually the Psalmist is more interested in thinking about God as a shepherd than in thinking about our predicament, but the point is the same. Like sheep we are well cared-for creatures who don’t always realize where our care comes from.

There is a second thing we can know about ourselves, verse 8ff. We’re a vine, planted, taking root and growing.

So how do you see yourself? As sheep? As a vine? Let’s face it, those may not be the images you prefer, but they tell you something about yourself.

“It’s hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffing slightly, “when you’re only a Very Small Animal.”

Rabbit, who had begun to write very busily, looked up and said, “It is because you are a very small animal that you will be useful in the adventure before us.”

I was talking with someone recently who went to his doctor for a check up. The doctor ordered blood work and this person learned he had cholesterol of 266. And he had a call back visit with the doctor to talk about a treatment procedure. The doctor talked about exercise and diet and since this man was relatively young, the doctor did not prescribe medications. The visit to the doctor told this young man something about himself and he wanted the second visit because he wanted to know what to do. What does the Psalmist want from God in Psalm 80? We can see in verse 3 that he wants to be restored, maybe we could call it, re-planted since he doesn’t seem to be growing well where he is. And he wants God’s face to shine upon him. That expression comes from the benediction of Aaron in Number 6, wonderful words that you have heard before,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you:
the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.
If you were thinking of yourself as a plant, the instructions would be: needs plenty of sun, and keep out of air currents, because you want the Lord’s face to shine upon you as a plant and because you want peace - separate from the ebb and flow of air currents..

But there is one other thing we might notice when we look at verse 3. What the Psalmist wants from God is repeated in verses 7 and 19, but if you look at those three verses, you notice a slight difference. In verse 3, the Psalmist says, “Restore us, O God.” In verse 7 the Psalmist asks, “Restore us, O God Almighty.” And in verse 19, the Psalmist asks, “Restore us, O Lord God Almighty.” So in each of these lines, which look at first like the same thing, the Psalmist makes the plea stronger! What is the significance of that? Well, he’s not merely praying hail Marys! Where it is the same over and over again. And since each plea is stronger, you know he is voicing his need more firmly. His need for help is bringing to his mind more and more of who God is.

We can see the plant the Psalmist writes about beginning in verse 8. The plant came out of Egypt, meaning when Israel came out of Egypt at the Exodus, that base line event for Israel’s identity. The farmer, who is God, in verse 9, clears the ground to plant the vine in Palestine. And the soil must be pretty good, because it grows. It grows really big. But, we know from the history of Israel, that as the nation grew in wealth and prestige, it stopped depending upon God. Israel came to believe that it would do okay on its own, and God broke down the walls protecting the plant and rabbits came and ate it up. Now I know that verse 13 says boars ate it, but I guess I’m thinking about my garden again. This is what the Psalmist says about us. When people grow too much, they tend to stop depending on God.

2. The Psalm goes on to say something about God. It says he is a shepherd (verse 1). It says he is the Lord God Almighty (verses 4, 19) and it says that he is a farmer (verse 8) who is caring for this plant. Now what the psalmist is saying about God is what we have seen in other Psalms. God, we remember how you saved us in the past, and now we trust that you will do it again. After all, if God took all this trouble to plant and care for this vine, doesn’t he want it to do well?

I want you to think for a moment of the Chinese bamboo plant. A farmer plants the bamboo seed and waters and fertilizes it. If the seed doesn’t sprout in the first year, it will die. But during the first four years, except for the little sprouts, nothing happens. In the fifth year, in a nine week period, the bamboo grows 90 feet high. It does that because in those first four years it develops a huge root system.

That’s like the vine God planted.

In verses 3, 7 and 19, when the Psalmist prays his thrice - repeated prayer, he asks, “restore us.” What is the condition for restoration? The condition is repentance. God is not going to restore anyone until he repents. All this is related to who God is. The Psalmist’s concern about who God is in not a theoretical concern but a practical concern. He wants to understand God in order that his heart might respond to Him and his life be conformed to Him. That was the Psalmist’s concern. When we consider God as shepherd or God as farmer, our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance with God. Finally, we must, as we read the Bible, always be working to turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God. We do this by meditating before God on the things we read about him and by praying on the basis of each new thing we see. The purpose of meditating and praying upon God is to let the truths about God which we discover all the time in the Bible affect our hearts and our minds.

3. So let us consider, thirdly, what are the signs that we are growing? The first sign is so obvious we might not see it. Why are the people singing about the troubles God sends? We can tell both by what we know about the Psalms generally and by the specific title of this Psalm, that the Psalms are meant for singing: “For the director of music. To the tune of..,” that the people sang this Psalm. They sing because they believe God is king. God does not force the people to worship him, or sing about him, so in fact they may choose not to, as some of you choose not to sing during our worship. But the singing recognizes that God is king even when they are being deserted by God; they sing.

The main plant of this Psalm is a grapevine. Seeing God’s people as a grapevine is a common image in the Bible. For example, in Isaiah 5, “I will sing to the one I love about his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard.... he dug a fertile hillside up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest of vines. He built a watchtower in it .... Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.”

That’s the same as the song of the Psalmist. So the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 goes on, “What more could I have done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” So what does the prophet say God will do? “I will break down its wall and take away its hedge and I will make it a wasteland.” What, asks the prophet, is missing? And here is his answer, they need to have regard for the deeds of the Lord. They need to have understanding. There needs to be justice - which means acting on the basis of what God says he wants the relation between people to be. They need to pay attention to the law of the Lord.

In the New Testament, in John 15, Jesus talks also about a grapevine. This is what Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” Now have you ever seen a vineyard? How do you distinguish vine and branches? The vine is all branches. So Jesus says, we are in this together. “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” And then comes the coup d’etat. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Here is a secret for Christians. We are the branches of a vine that is Jesus. God is still the farmer, but we are no ordinary vine. We are Jesus’ body, the church. And the fruit is what we bear in the service and the kindness and the justice we show as a people. What is expected of us is the same as it was for God’s people in the Old Testament. It is the help we have to bear this fruit that is different. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches.

The signs of growth in us are whether we are in relation to Jesus Christ. One demonstration of this relation is in communion. When we take together the elements of the Lord’s supper, as we are doing this morning, we are saying, I believe that Jesus died for me and rose to newness of life to give me life. So in this symbol we are saying, I want there to be signs of growth in me. I believe this stuff. That confession is the beginning of growth. Are you growing? If you are putting down roots by studying the Bible and praying and seeking to know God, you’ll grow 90 feet in one year.